Beethoven’s Symphonic Masterpiece

The work of a madman.

Carl Maria von Weber

We’ve already heard Beethoven’s Third, Fifth and Sixth. The Ninth is still to come, but today’s selection, his Seventh Symphony, is my personal favorite.  I’m not alone.  Berlioz declared it to be Beethoven’s “masterpiece.”  Wagner wrote rhapsodic essays about it.  And it was extremely popular with Viennese audiences from the get-go.  While audiences needed time to warm up to many of Beethoven’s prior works, the Seventh was insanely popular upon its premiere, especially the second movement, which the audience applauded until the orchestra agreed to immediately encore it at the premiere. I can’t disagree: I’ve probably listened to that second movement more times than any other work of music, full stop.

I was fortunate to take a Master Class with Leonard Bernstein on this piece, so I’m cribbing from what I remember about his analysis combined with some acquired insights of my own. If you really want to understand what Beethoven was doing here, listen to AC/DC or The Rolling Stones. Because at the beating heart of those two bands lie the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time, Malcolm Young and Keith Richards–and their obsession with rhythmic motifs (or riffs)–finds its root in the symphonies of Beethoven’s heroic period. Let’s start there, with one of the most obsessive riffs in rock history:

AC/DC, Hells Bells

Now, let’s see how a real master does it. In his most proto-rock symphony, Beethoven simply tears the roof off. To help walk through this remarkable work, I’m including references to points in the Carlos Kleiber recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. You can use the YouTube clip below, but the time markings after the first movement need the separate tracks from the CD or streamed versions available on Spotify or Apple Music.

The first movement (A Major) opens with an introduction that is one of if not the longest that Beethoven ever wrote–bringing us to about the 3:15 mark when the music, which had been grand and soaring up until that point, appears to break, settling on an E. This resolution is deeply satisfying, since E is the resolving note to A Major. Beethoven hammers this idea home by repeating this E–varying only the rhythm. And for what must be the first time since early medieval music, the same note repeats more than 30 times in a row, taking us to about 3:50. Where this will go? Beethoven speeds up the pace to vivace–building our anticipation–but what we get is just more Es, repeating the same exact note for a total of 61 times, before the theme finally breaks out at 3:55. And these Es set out Beethoven’s great galloping riff, which figures in nearly every bar of the movement.

Once the theme enters, the momentum begins to build–and you can feel the power of the music straining the break free, which it finally does, like a great wave crashing over the audience, at around 4:21. If there is more joyous music in this world, I don’t know what it is. And yet, like a great Rolling Stones song, Beethoven’s accompanying rhythm is persistent. The harmony barely changes. Just by controlling the dynamics, Beethoven creates music where no music should really exist.

Then, just when you’ve surrendered the power of that riff, Beethoven starts ripping everything apart–we don’t get a true second theme here, just a reexamination of the dominant theme from different perspectives. All with that persistent rhythm driving the score forward to the end of the exposition. The exposition ends with scales (starting around 5:57) that recalls the introduction. First we get the customary repeat of the exposition with those endless Es, but, the second time through, Beethoven changes the tonality, which takes us into the development (around 8:20). The end of the exposition features two jarring pauses, breaking the rhythm and hence the momentum of the movement. This will need to be resolved. Thankfully, that’s what the development is for–and for what may be the first time in history, the development is going to be primarily about rhythmic development, not harmonic development. The profound satisfaction achieved through rhythmic development and resolution was not lost on rock bands either, although few can pull it off convincingly. Here’s one good example:

Rush, Jacob’s Ladder

Back to Beethoven: The development begins in pianissimo, with that persistent rhythmic motif in the strings: Of the 101 measures of the development, only two do not feature this omnipresent rhythm. Beethoven sets winds, brass and strings against each other, each trying outplay each other on the same rhythm. Those two measures without the rhythmic motif appear at around 9:05–leading to Beethoven changing the rhythm in the string section, while the winds retain the original. This polyrhythmic dissonance, surely the first in symphonic music, must be resolved. And resolve it Beethoven does, with heapings of brass and timpani (starting around 9:40). As the various components of the orchestra begin to get into sync, the music arrives . . . yes, no surprise here, on that dotted E rhythmic motif (10:03). And, just like that, we are in the recapitulation, with the main, joyous theme breaking out in the strings (10:07). Then those scales come back at the end (12:12), leading us into the coda this time after two bars of silence. The coda starts with what can only be described as a music shrug (12:20). The violins take up those persistent Es, while the lower strings play the chromatic scales from the introduction, melding the two great ideas of the movement–all supported by the omnipresent rhythm–before breaking into another moment of pure joy (12:59) to wrap everything up in a bow. The first movement is all about balance. The introduction and the coda are each 62 measures. The exposition and recapitulation are 115 measures each, bookending a development section of 97 measures. It is a triumph in A Major.

Which is why the next movement, starting in the parallel key of A Minor, is so jarring emotionally. After an A Minor chord in the winds and brass, the strings enter with some of Beethoven’s most iconic music. Naturally, it’s another rhythmic motif on an E:

While Beethoven surely didn’t know this while composing the symphony, its premiere would be at a benefit concert for wounded soldiers. It’s hard not to think of the horror of war during this opening march, but the music invites the imagination to run wild here. Beethoven’s music isn’t bound by any formal structure I can determine–at times it seems like a theme and variation or alternatively as a rondo. And, in another break from tradition, it isn’t a traditional slow movement (although some conductors reprehensibly slow it down to nearly an adagio)–it is allegretto.

Everything in this movement again revolves around this rhythmic motif. And even more than the first movement, the motif dominates. As Bernstein said, there is little remarkable about this music if you break it down into its constituent elements. It’s barely a melody. The harmonics are compressed into no more than a 4th. Even the rhythm is pretty basic (and much, much easier to play than that dotted E rhythm in the first movement). But everything is just perfect. From the proportions of line to the dynamics. And as I recall Bernstein saying, Beethoven more than any other composer in history knew the perfect next note. Even though he struggled with composition, the end result was beyond anything even Mozart or Bach could put forth, because of his singular genius of knowing the next right note, even when the music is at its most unexpected. This singular genius is on no greater display than during THAT MOMENT, where the brass finally enters in full (2:10), which is unquestionably my favorite moment in all of music history. Everything in this movement is music at its most basic, and yet the effect that Beethoven produces is truly transcendent.

The movement takes a detour back into A Major (listen for the clarinet), before the serenity of A Major is abruptly and forcefully resolved (again) on a series of Es (4:22). The rhythmic motif reappears in the winds, supported by a nervous accompaniment in the strings. The 16th notes in this accompaniment mutates into a fugue on the main theme (5:20), before returning in full (6:10). Eventually, the music will die away–the rhythmic motif been passed by diminishing winds, brass, and strings playing pizzicato before concluding on the same A Minor chord on which it opened.

The third movement is a rollicking Scherzo. Beethoven invented the idea of a scherzo (joke in Italian) to replace the traditional minuet movement pioneered by Haydn. This Scherzo has it all–an addictive theme that retains much of the dance ethic of Haydn’s minuet (albeit faster and much less courtly), as well as a lovely trio that was based on an Austrian folk song. The movement is in the key of F Major, as the opening chord announces. F is the diatonic mediant of A minor, which enables Beethoven to seamlessly modulate from the final chord of the second movement (A Minor (A-C-E)) to the opening chord of the third movement (F Major (A-C-F)). This is a very thickly textured movement, which recalls the opening movement from the Sixth Symphony, as Beethoven uses multiple rhythmic motifs to build his dance. The result is infectious. If I have one complaint with Kleiber’s account it is that the trio (starting at 2:12) is taken too slowly. The effect is to transform a languid passage into something of a slow dance. Beethoven ends the movement with a joke. The A theme returns three times in the movement, but as the B theme returns for a third time, Beethoven rudely cuts it off at the knees with a series of jarring chords.

So, how to resolve such a monumental work? Beethoven’s solution was to present a movement of unprecedented propulsion and joy. There is barely any theme here, and virtually no melody to speak of. Beethoven has, to borrow a phrase, completely surrendered to the rhythm–and music would never be the same again. This is all riff, no fluff. In fact, the same music appears in Beethoven’s setting of a contemporary Irish folks song. Listen to the piano, starting at 1:50 in the below:

Ludwig van Beethoven, 12 Irish Songs: 8 “Save me from the grave and wise:

Beethoven uses the same music for both an Irish folk song and the conclusion of what is arguably his best symphony. I began this blog with a quote from the composer Alban Berg, who told George Gershwin that it didn’t matter that Gershwin’s music wasn’t as complex or elevated–“Music is music,” Berg said. Yes–but that’s only because Beethoven deemed it so. After Beethoven, the lines between formal music and popular music become blurry–who writes the more “elevated” music today, Philip Glass or Radiohead? Does that question even matter?

The “bacchanalia” of this final movement is created intentionally, with sforzandi coming on the off beats of each measure, as well as more dotted rhythms that recall the theme of the first movement. So much of this movement is just pure rhythm, which strikes us as perfectly natural after a century plus of rhythmically-driven music. But think about what has led up to this point, as catalogued here–is there anything remotely like this? Even the Romantics, with all of their wild and wondrous inventions, would never dedicate an entire major work to an examination of rhythm. The elevation of rhythm over melody was uniquely Beethovian and the secret of his enduring appeal.

But that’s not all what’s going on in this remarkable movement. Entire essays could (and likely do) examine what Beethoven is doing harmonically, as the music runs far afield of the tonic A Major. And Beethoven seems to blend the sonata and rondo forms, especially in the development sections where the theme repeatedly emerges before returning triumphantly at the start of the recapitulation (5:15). The coda is more of the same. As the music builds frenetically, with the rhythmic motif of the movement being handed off like a baton around the various sections of the orchestra, the key becomes totally lost (at least to my ear). Tonally adrift in raucous celebration, final resolution emerges in the lower strings, which find, what else, but an E. And this is the point: The Seventh Symphony may be in the key of A, but it is all about movement to the dominant E. That’s what the rhythms are driving us to. We know this intuitively by now–Beethoven has spent the better part of 40 minutes training our ears to expect that E. And when it arrives, it is like the gates of heaven open before us. To celebrate this momentous occasion, Beethoven notates fff–triple forte–for the first time in music history. At the time, fortissimo–ff— was understood to be “as loud as possible,” so here, in 1812, Beethoven is quite literally dialing up his orchestra to 11.

In the 1960s, The Who would smash their instruments at the end of their set, while Jimmy Hendrix set his on fire. In the 1980s, AC/DC would fire off cannons during their final encore. But nothing–NOTHING–compares with this: Quite simply the greatest mic drop in music history.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92:

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